Cold Comfort: Syrian Seeds Locked in Arctic Vault

Though violence continues in the Middle Eastern country, its seeds have found safe harbor underground.

Man depositing seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault
Seedy territory: Syrian selections join more than 25,000 other seed samples in a giant vault near the North Pole. (Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins/Getty Images)
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Drought, climate change, monoculture and overpopulation aren’t the only threats to maintaining a vibrant world food supply. War can play a role as well. While turmoil in Syria continues, scientists got busy selecting some of the country’s native seeds like chick peas and fava beans, and deposited them in Svalbard Global Seed Vault this week.

“I think the events unfolding in Syria obviously underline the importance of having safety duplication outside of a country,” Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, told the Associated Press.

Fowler is right to be concerned over the preservation of native Syrian seeds. During wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, seed banks were destroyed. And this time last year, the Egyptian Deserts Gene Bank was looted during the country’s Arab Spring.

The Syrian seeds weren’t the only new deposit to the underground facility, affectionately known as the “Doomsday Vault.” More than 25,000 other seed samples, including amaranth, malting barley, and a number of wheat varieties from around the world, were also stored this week for safe-keeping—one of the few times a year the vault allows seed deposits.

The new additions also happen to arrive just as the project turns four years old. Opened in 2008, the vault, a mere 800 chilly miles from the North Pole, in essence stores hope for mankind in three fortified underground chambers. It was built to withstand catastrophes as severe as nuclear war.

“The plight of seeds is one of the most important environmental stories of our time,” writes environmental journalist Claire Cummings, author of Uncertain Peril. And it’s not simply drought conditions that Cummings finds concerning.

“Both the diversity and the integrity of seeds are threatened, in the wild and on our farms. They are being put at risk by agricultural technologies, patents and corporate ownership, and the overall degradation of the environment,” she writes.

To date, there are more than 740,000 seed samples stored in Svalbard, and room for a total of 1.5 million samples. The vault does not accept seeds that have been genetically modified. Marking its four-year anniversary, Ross Andersen over at The Atlantic has an in-depth Q&A with Fowler that we thought was especially interesting. “Are there scenarios you can envision that would render the earth’s environments entirely inhospitable to seeds?” he asks.

“We expect that agriculture would even survive something like an asteroid strike: after all, plants survived the last one. What we’re really trying to do up in Svalbard is preserve options,” Fowler tells The Atlantic.

And having a little something in the bank never hurts.

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